Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

How can we avoid risky and dishonesty shifts in seminar wargames?


Stephen Downes-Martin has written up the discussion from another Connections game lab session, this time on How can we avoid risky and dishonesty shifts in seminar wargames?

The group identified three research questions and identified and discusses nine ways that the risky and (dis)honest shifts could be baselined, measured, controlled or mitigated.

Two Behavior Shifts During Small Group Discussions

The (Dis)honesty Shift

Research indicates “that there is a stronger inclination to behave immorally in groups than individually,” resulting in group decisions that are less honest than the individuals would tolerate on their own. “Dishonest” in the context of the research means the group decisions break or skirt the ethical rules of the organization and societal norms, involve cheating and lying. Furthermore, the group discussions tend to shift the individuals’ post-discussion norms of honest behavior towards dishonest. First the discussion tends to challenge the honesty norm, then inattention to one’s own moral standards (during the actual discussion) and categorization malleability (the range in which dishonesty can occur without triggering self-assessment and self-examination) create the effect that “people can cheat, but their behaviors, which they would usually consider dishonest do not bear negatively on their self-concept (they are not forced to update their self-concept)”. The research indicates that it is the small group communication that causes the shift towards dishonesty that enables group members to coordinate on dishonest actions and change their beliefs about honest behavior”. The group members “establish a new norm regarding (dis)honest behavior”. Appeals to ethics standards seem to be effective in the short term [Mazar et al] but there is little evidence for long term effectiveness.

The Risky Shift

Research into risky or cautious shifts during group discussion looks at whether and when a group decision shifts to be riskier or more cautious than the decision that the individuals would have made on their own. One element driving the shift appears to be who bears the consequences of the decision – the group members, people the group members know (colleagues, friends, family), or people the group members do not know. There is evidence that individuals tend to be myopically risk averse when making decisions for themselves. Research indicates however that “risk preferences are attenuated when making decisions for other people: risk-averse participants take more risk for others whereas risk seeking participants take less.” Whether the group shows a risky shift or a cautious shift depends on the culture from which the group is drawn and the size of the shift seems to depend on the degree of empathy the group feels for those who will bear the consequences and risks of the decision.

Research into leadership shows that “responsibility aversion” is driven by a desire for more “certainty about what constitutes the best choice when others’ welfare is affected”, that individuals “who are less responsibility averse have higher questionnaire-based and real-life leadership scores” and do not seek more certainty when making decisions that are risky for others than they seek when making decisions that are risky for themselves alone. However, this research says nothing about the starting risk-seeking or risk-avoiding preference of the decision making leader.

See the full paper (link above) for further discussion, including the footnotes (which have been removed from the excerpt above).

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